Nayantara Narayanan| June 1, 2014| 7.25 am ISTA discussion in India about air pollution now almost always devolves into a Delhi versus Beijing debate. Public health researchers in India say the debate is only important if it spurs action against the public health menace.The issue came to the fore in January when Yale and Columbia Universities released their Environmental Performance Index that ranked India at 155 out of 178 countries on overall pollution while China did better with a rank of 118..On air pollution as indicated by levels of particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns, referred to as PM2.5, the two countries were neck-and-neck at the bottom of the table â€“ India at 174 and China at 176.In early May the World Health Organization released pollution data of major cities across the world, which showed that India has the largest number of most polluted cities. What grabbed everyoneâ€™s attention was the fact that the concentration of particulate matter smaller than 10 microns - PM10 - and PM2.5 in Delhi is worse than in Beijing. Delhi clocked 286 micrograms per meter cubed on PM10 and 153 micrograms per meter cubed for PM25.Indian officials were quick to pooh-pooh the comparison between air pollution in India and China in January. Gufran Beig of the System of Air Quality Weather Forecasting and Research (SAFAR) conceded that Delhiâ€™s air was bad but nowhere as bad as Beijingâ€™s. After the WHO data came out in May, Beig is reported to have said that air quality in Delhi and Beijing is comparable but that Delhi canâ€™t possibly be worse than Beijing. He rejected the WHO data and said that Delhiâ€™s PM2.5 levels were close to 110 micrograms, not 153 micrograms.Public Health Foundation of India researcher Bhargav Krishna feels that framing the debate as a Beijing versus Delhi issue may provide context but doesnâ€™t help in Indiaâ€™s fight against air pollution. â€œI think this distracts from the larger picture which is that even at 110 is it around twice the permissible limits by even our own standards, the national ambient air quality standards, and more than four times the WHOâ€™s permissible limits,â€ he said. The national standard for PM2.5 level is 60 micrograms.In a position paper, Krishna has made a call to action against ambient air pollution. He notes that Indiaâ€™s own National Ambient Air Quality Standards report for 2010 showed that the PM10 annual average exceeded the national standard of 60 micrograms per meter cubed in 295 of the 456 monitoring sites. In 192 cities PM10 reached critical levels, more than 1.5 times the standard. The maximum reading was taken in Delhi, a colossal 1699 micrograms per meter cubed.Constant exposure to fine particulate matter can cause respiratory and pulmonary diseases and in India is estimated to lead to 100,000 deaths every year. A 2002 study out of the Brigham Young University estimated that exposure to 120 micrograms of PM2.5 is equivalent to smoking eight to twelve cigarettes a day.The study showed that even low levels of particulate matter had a high impact on cardiovascular diseases. In other words, PM2.5 at 110 micrograms (Indiaâ€™s estimate) and PM2.5 at 153 (WHO estimate) micrograms can be equally bad.Melina Magsumbol, who also works with the PHFI in Delhi, says the high pollution levels manifest mostly as respiratory ailments. â€œWe donâ€™t even have to look for clinical based outcomes like pneumonia and bronchitis. Its just the fact that you can notice more people around you are wheezing, coughing and have allergies that is one of things we think is normal but itâ€™s actually not,â€ she said.China has begun to implement the Clean Air Action Plan it developed last year. Among other measures, the country plans to remove high emission cars from its roads and shut coal furnaces down. â€œIn China, it makes the news. They are trying to be transparent as well, which is very interesting for Beijing,â€ said Magsumbol.India has been quick to find fault with air pollution data but is playing catch up when it comes to, literally, clearing the air. Indiaâ€™s health ministry constituted a steering committee in January that will deliver a report by the end of the year on possible action. After the WHO report came out, the Delhi lieutenant governor constituted a high-level committee on air pollution.â€œLetâ€™s face it, we can compare against Beijing all we like but they are actually doing something about it,â€ said Krishna.Chinese Premier Li Keqiang declared a war on smog this year. He called pollution â€˜â€˜natureâ€™s red-light warning against the model of inefficient and blind development.â€™â€™ India, which has given a mandate for development in the largest ever election, would do well to heed that warning.(A telling infographic from the Environmental Performance Index shows that Beijing leads Delhi even on efforts to communicate air pollution risks to citizens).